Let’s Get Virtual

A Look at How the Development of Virtual Reality Filmmaking is Mirroring History

Light, sound, camera movement, editing: the building blocks of cinema honed and refined over 12 decades since the first public screening in 1885. Looking at modern day cinematic masterpieces like James Cameron’s Avatar or Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight it’s hard to believe that, just under a decade ago, the first film was nothing more than a 10-minute black and white long shot of workers leaving out of a factory.  Over the last one hundred years, film has seen huge developments in lighting, sound, camera movement, editing and more thanks to filmmakers eager to push the boundaries of the art form and discover innovative waves to unspool a narrative.

The invention of 360 video and virtual reality, however, turns back the clock and puts filmmakers back at square one. The lighting, sound, cinematography, and editing techniques that have been so carefully refined for flat screen cinema do not carry over to 360 filmmaking. In order for this new medium to survive and thrive, a complete reinvention of the elements of film is inevasible—something that has modern day filmmakers, who are comfortable with current technology and techniques, squirming. Over a hundred years ago, filmmakers undoubtedly had similar qualms every time new technology made waves in their industry.

If we are to look back on the history of film, several parallels emerge between the evolution of flat screen filmmaking and the current development of virtual reality filmmaking. These parallels suggest a promising future for narrative VR despite the primitive nature of the current technology.  Take, for example, camera movement.

Some of the biggest challenges facing VR filmmakers right now are how to incorporate camera movement in their films, how to light their sets, and how to incorporating editing —all problems faced by flat screen filmmakers throughout history. The first films had virtually no camera movement, not sound, and very little editing. Early filmmakers actually avoided camera movement so as not to confuse the audience. However, as camera technology became more mobile, filmmakers like Orson Welles and Garret Brown started experimenting with tracking, pan, and crane shots—revolutionizing the very techniques used to visually tell a story.  Audiences were not confused by this new development but intrigued and excited.

The conversation around the incorporation of camera movement in 360 degree films is following a similar trajectory as the conversation on camera movement in flat screen films did one hundred years ago. “Will camera movement be disorienting or confusing to the audience?” seems to be the question at the forefront of 360 filmmakers’ minds. Considering the way camera movement has evolved in flat screen filmmaking, 360 filmmakers are perhaps underestimating their audience’s ability to adapt to new mechanisms within a medium.

Conversations around editing, sound, and lighting in VR and 360 films are also mirroring those of early filmmakers.

How does one use editing to enhance rather than disrupt the meaning of the narrative?

What is the most effective way to record sound using this new type of camera?

Where do we place lights? How will lighting contribute to the story?

These are all questions being asked by the pioneers of the 360 video and VR worlds—questions that echo those of the groundbreaking filmmakers who made flat screen movies what they are today. The medium may be new but the conversations aren’t. Should today’s VR filmmakers pursue answers to their questions with the same enthusiasm and creativity as history’s flat screen filmmakers, the future of narrative 360 video and VR is exciting indeed.

— Danika Thibault

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